A study published in 1990 showed students less engaged in community service than ever in American history. “I found this a devastating and sad fact,” explains Anne-Marie Foley. Her original charge for the Honors College in 1990—to develop innovative programming for honors students—has expanded from “a desk and a phone” and a handful of students to a program that involves 10% of the MU undergraduate population. Drawing upon her own personal commitment to working with the elderly, Foley started gathering groups of students from the Honors College (“bribing” them with free pizza) to share their views.
In an effort to combine coursework with community work, Foley designed a class in which students explore social issues and challenges while simultaneously performing service (with service counting as part of the overall requirements). As it turns out, in the early 1990s other campuses throughout the country were developing similar programs—a movement that soon came to be called “service-learning.” MU’s service-learning program began with 15 honors students and has grown to over 2,500, having expanded beyond the Honors College into all sectors of the general MU population. Now the sixth largest of its kind in the country, this program continues to foster environments where students can learn from the “real world” and begin a life-long pattern of community service and leadership.
Service-learning is an initiative that specializes in real-world problems and solutions. “We hear statistics all the time,” laments Foley. “Every evening there’s some news program that gives you some earth-shattering statistic that’s supposed to outrage you; and you’re supposed to sit back and say, ‘Somebody ought to do something about that. Why isn’t the government taking care of that problem?’ We discover from service- learning that these issues aren’t just statistics on television. They have an immediate human face. And the experience is very compelling, and it draws us into integrated democratic activism. It draws us outside of polarized rhetoric and partisanship into action. A human being and a human face are far more compelling than a statistic.” Indeed, another study in 2001 reveals a much more hopeful statistic—that college-aged students were now more engaged in service than at any other time in American history—signifying remarkable change nationally. Students aren’t just passing through their college towns and cities anymore. They are increasingly engaged in the communities in which they live.
There are myriad stories about student experiences in the community. In fact, hearing Foley tell some of them brought tears to my eyes. The best thing about the program, reflects Foley, who gave birth to service-learning at MU, is to see how students are transformed as well as how they benefit the community. “It’s a win-win situation,” she declares. Students apply what they’re learning in the classroom to a community setting, and then apply their experiences in the community to the classroom. What results is a dynamic process that “transforms classroom knowledge and discussion.”
Moreover, service-learning courses encourage a life-long commitment to community involvement among students. And why? Because they have the opportunity to reflect on the nature of civic responsibility and engagement in a democratic society while they learn about social issues by performing community service. “That’s one of the powers of this service-learning experience,” explains Foley. “We learn what we need to do.” Far from making students cynical, as some predicted initially, the program “makes people dedicated. It empowers them. It shows them that though the problems are large, there are victories to be had out there. What you have to offer can really change the way things are. This is what students are learning through service.” It’s not surprising that undergraduates who gain these real-life skills in college are more likely to engage in public service after college—for they’ve learned that they can actually make the world a better place.